By Briana Hallstrom
Blair Packard watched as his wife Cindy sat motionless with a little girl nestled in her arms. She hugged the small child, a blank stare masking her face. They were at an orphanage in Mozambique, a small country on the eastern shore of Africa. It was time for them to come home to the United States, but she simply could not let the girl go.
Cindy looked at Blair as he stepped forward, certain he was thinking, “Don”t go there, this is impossible.” But a “no” was the furthest thing from his mind. The logical thing to do was not what made sense or even mattered. And so instead of words of caution, he spoke words of care. Namely, “It will change our lives forever.”
Adopting Linda from Mozambique did change their lives forever, but the Packards” journey to Africa did not start with this little girl. It started with a dream of service – a dream of helping the world. Now, four years later, it is a dream that has done everything but sleep.
“I always thought I would go on a mission or two,” Cindy said. “Blair and I are both in health care, and we thought we”d do a humanitarian mission.”
Their mission, however, would not be through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least not yet, and it would not need to wait until their senior years. Instead, they would start their own organization in Africa, and the time would be now.
The organization is Care For Life, a non-profit foundation that focuses on health, education and economics for the people of Mozambique. Their mission statement is to alleviate suffering, foster self-reliance and instill hope. Cindy said the center”s ultimate goal is to help the people become self-reliant. They have the intelligence to succeed, she said, but not the knowledge to carry it out. Care For Life strives to give them that knowledge.
Mozambique, as one of the poorest countries in the world, is a seemingly perfect candidate for the Packards” goal for service. The statistics alone are devastating with an unemployment rate of 90 percent, a life expectancy of 34 years and one in four children dying before they reach the age of five. But even with these numbers, the small country was not always the focus of their service.
“I had a friend who had gone to Zimbabwe (for humanitarian purposes),” Cindy said, “and she wanted me to go back with her. I prayed about it and got a strong answer that I was supposed to do it.”
After they decided to serve in Zimbabwe, Cindy and her family prepared to leave. Shortly before their departure, however, plans fell through. Zimbabwe was no longer a possibility, and Cindy said her family felt defeated in their efforts.
Annie, their daughter and a BYU student, said while she was upset at the family”s cancelled plans, it was not going to stop them from their goal. Their family had been looking for a way to serve, and that was that, she said.
“After we cancelled our trip, I realized there were so many other countries to work in,” she said. “And then my mom found an article about 50 percent of babies dying in some parts of Africa. My mom was a midwife by profession, and the article talked about how no one was interested in training birth attendants. It really had a big impact on her.”
Cindy said the article was not only a turning point for her, but also a crucial part of their decision to go to Mozambique.
“All of the problems mentioned in the article were completely preventable,” she said. “And when I read that over 50 percent of babies were dying, a sword went through me. I knew I couldn”t just sit there and ignore it.”
Soon after, Cindy met with the humanitarian service staff at LDS Church headquarters to feel out their position on this type of service. Much to her relief, they were completely supportive.
“President Hinckley had said to a group of charitable organizations meeting in Salt Lake City, ”We can”t take care of all the poor in the church let alone all the poor in the world,”” Cindy said. “He told us at this meeting that we were needed – that we could help make a difference in the world.”
With such encouragement, the Packards voyaged to Mozambique. Their efforts started out with health classes and teaching the people basic health care and prevention. Since they began in the summer of 2000, the programs have evolved and expanded, including an education center, a free health clinic and a charitable service center that works to relieve suffering in orphanages.
“All of the programs interrelate,” Cindy said. “Our schools are focused more on helping people who are poor learn ways to improve their life.”
With the organization being non-profit, all of its support is made up of volunteers. For her part, Cindy spends her mornings in their Arizona home on the computer answering e-mail correspondence, working on grant writing and doing public relations for the foundation.
Blair, on the other hand, comes home from his job as a physical therapist and starts what he and Cindy jokingly call “the second shift,” which includes bookkeeping for the center and keeping the finances in order.
In addition to the work Blair and Cindy do, the Packards take people over every summer to teach classes and interact with the people.
Jordan Ash, 24, majoring in neuroscience, has gone with the Packards to Mozambique for the last two summers. He will go again this summer, and said he hopes to be a part of it for many years to come.
“They really are an amazing organization,” he said. “The need in Mozambique amazes me. It is just so great. The work we have been doing gives people hope. You can see it in their eyes.”
With all of the time, energy and setbacks the Packards have faced, they said they have never looked back.
“What has clearly kept me going,” Cindy said, “are the many confirmations I”ve had that this is the right thing to do. It”s been so hard, but then a mini-miracle will happen and doors will open in amazing ways. It”s just a testimony that this is what we should be doing.”
One way in which they will forever be connected to Mozambique is through their new daughter, Linda. As parents of six children, adoption was an idea neither Blair nor Cindy entertained. They now have 10 grandchildren after all – they were finished with that stage of their life.
“Initially, Cindy and Annie went to all the orphanages,” Blair said, “but you have to be a little emotionally detached. You have to steel those hearts a little bit. But then we all started to develop favorites, and those emotional guards weren”t happening. Feelings were growing deeper for this little girl.”
Blair said both he and Cindy thought about finding a young couple to adopt Linda. But at that point they were not sure if adoption was possible, or if they could even give her away. It was then they decided the answer to the latter question was no. Just as they could not pull away from Mozambique, Blair and Cindy could not pull away from Linda. In essence, she adopted them.
“To be honest,” Annie said, “it was a huge shock to be the baby of the family for 19 years and then to have your parents tell you they love this little girl and want her to be a part of your family. It wasn”t necessarily hard for me to accept, it was just such an adjustment.”
That adjustment, she said, has turned out to be one of joy.
“She really has brought our family closer together,” she said. “I just can”t believe that I”m her sister.”
Throughout the whole experience with Linda and Care For Life, Cindy said she has feelings of overwhelming gratitude.
“People always have the idea that you”re making a sacrifice,” Cindy said, “but it”s not true. You get so many blessings, and it never comes out even. You spend your whole life trying to pay the Lord back.”
Blair said the service Cindy referred to – that obligation to the Lord – is a necessary part of life. He said most people in the church serve faithfully where they are called, but at some point, people often cross a threshold where something is not obligatory. Some service, perhaps all service, should be done for a different reason, he said. It has to derive from an element of true sacrifice that is just an expression of love.
The Packards” work in Mozambique has reached people in the United States. A family in Arizona adopted a handicapped little boy, and volunteers, including some from BYU, have made a habit of using their summers for service with Care For Life.
While Care For Life continues to grow both in their programs and the amount of people being helped, the purpose of the family”s work remains unchanged.
“We have so much to give cause we have so much,” Annie said. “I come back being 10 times a better person because of the things they have taught me. It”s so great to watch how Heavenly Father makes it such a two-fold process. They get the temporal blessings, and what we get is too incredible to measure.”
For more information about Care For Life, check out their website at www.careforlife.org.